In a past life, the satirist Charlie Brooker may have been one of those dogs with a sixth sense for imminent natural disaster, barking urgently at the humans who are blithely unaware their whole world is about to be smashed to smithereens. The preteen Brooker watched scary TV documentaries about nuclear war and assumed it would happen some day. As the co-creator of the Emmy-award-winning series Black Mirror, he has offered dystopian prophecies of the unintended consequences of technology, from robotic killer dogs to tracking chip implants in Matrix-like virtual worlds. So a microbe shaking civilisation to its core can’t have come as a complete surprise.
“It’s odd,” he says. “You know the film Contagion that lots of people have watched recently? When that came out and I read the description and everyone said this is really horrible and you should wash your hands a million times and use hand gel, I thought, there’s no way on earth I’m ever gonna watch that because that is exactly the sort of thing that terrifies me.
“Like when swine flu happened, I went around using hand gel and not touching doorknobs for several months. I’ve always been a bit of a hypochondriac. I’m like this every year when the norovirus happens and I’ve always been concerned that something – you can detect, obviously, in Black Mirror a certain level of paranoia – that things could slide out of control at any moment.”
One of Black Mirror’s best-known episodes, USS Callister, ends with a bully, Robert Daly, trapped inside a tiny spacecraft screaming: “Exit fucking game!” as the lights of his computer-simulated universe wink out around him. At times, pandemic lockdown can make us all feel like Daly, floating in the void with no exit in sight. Brooker’s blend of self-scrutiny, Alan Bennett-esque whimsy and curmudgeonly profanities would appear to make him an ideal pub companion. But the pubs are closed, so Brooker is speaking by phone from his home in Ealing, west London.
It seems hard to be a Pollyanna-in-reverse, living in a perpetual state of hyperanxiety. But having long suspected that Armageddon is around the corner, has Brooker thicker psychological armour for the pandemic? “I do think that, in a strange way, when the worst actually happens – I don’t know if this is true for everyone who’s an anxious or neurotic person, but it’s definitely true for my head – you’re not worrying about what is unknown because it’s right in front of you. In fact, it’s hypnotically clear what the challenge is. It’s not like I’m relaxed, but I don’t have that sense of creeping dread of the unknown.
“That means I’m slightly acclimatised. I’m not going through a giant psychological shock that this has happened because, in a way, I sort of thought it might. I don’t think that in a smart-arsey way, but I had felt worried, for years, because having watched lots of nuclear war stuff as a kid, I assumed that was going to happen to me. I assumed I was going to be stumbling through rubble eating rats, so this happening just confirms my expectations in many ways.
“It means once it’s happened and it’s occurring, I’m not having to deal so much – obviously, like anyone I’ve got my abyss-staring moments – but I’m not having to deal so much with a huge adjustment, in a way. Hopefully that doesn’t sound like bragging. It’s certainly nothing to brag about.”
In isolation, he banged his head on a pull-up bar and almost had to go to accident and emergency. (“If you’ve got a pull-up bar that goes in a doorway, immediately take it down and throw it away because it genuinely nearly killed me.”) He and his wife, the former Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq, are trying to juggle work commitments with home-schooling their sons, aged eight and six. “Their screen time has gone through the roof,” Brooker says, cheerfully, a child’s yell occasionally audible in the background. “Their screen time has probably always been higher and really would get me drummed off Mumsnet. But I always think, well, I watched loads of telly. And I think video games are good for you. If they’re playing Mario Maker 2, where you’re creating, I think that’s much better than just watching a cartoon or something, so I don’t particularly mind.”
Brooker has been catching up with Quiz, Tiger King and Unorthodox, as well as his “comfort watch”, MasterChef. He grumbles: “I just don’t think things should have a one-word title. I mean, I guess you could get away with Quiz, but a show called See – why am I gonna watch that? Make an effort. If you can’t be bothered to put two words in your title, why should I be bothered to tune in?”
He does get out for a walk or jog once a day. “I’m very aware if I’m going out running that the joggers have got a bad rep at the moment, spluttering and running past. So I go out of my way to run into the middle of the road or cross the street and I get very cross when I see someone not doing that. I don’t bother saying anything to them because what if they came over and hit me?”
For Brooker, who wrote the column Screen Burn for the Guardian’s Guide from 2000 to 2010, there has also been an opportunity to revive one of his greatest hits, Wipe, in which he caustically reviews and skewers television from a sofa. The concept started life with Screenwipe on BBC Four in 2006 and moved to BBC Two with Newswipe, Gameswipe, Weekly Wipe and annual Wipes. Now a 45-minute Antiviral Wipe special will broadcast on Thursday, including the familiar characters Philomena Cunk (Diane Morgan) and Barry Shitpeas (Al Campbell).
Hollywood and the West End might be comatose, but Wipe marches on. Brooker was lucky to have a literal in-house production team that included Huq and a documentary-maker who has been helping with childcare and staying in a spare room. He also has the familiar sofa rescued from the studio when the show finished. “The only difference is that people have to keep running off to deal with a crying baby or the internet goes down or we have to synchronise our toilet breaks. Other than that, it’s surprisingly seamless.”
The virus may seem like a tough topic for Wipe, but Brooker says: “Obviously we’re mindful of the fact that this is an extreme time for everybody, but hopefully we’re getting it right tonally. I hope we’re not being patronising. It’s not kid gloves. There’s a bit of gallows humour in there. I think that’s important and I think that’s human and I think that’s cathartic, and you just have to gauge it right. There are things to laugh at and there are things to question.”
Over in the US, Donald Trump has memorably suggested that once the lockdown ends, the coronavirus “must be quickly forgotten” and the economy will boom. Does Brooker think that in, say, a couple of years from now, life can go back to normal, as if the virus never happened? Or has it changed everything for good?
“I would imagine probably somewhere in the middle,” he replies. “There’s an absolute thirst for: ‘Oh, can we just go back to how things were’, but the longer it goes on, the longer we’ll forget what that was like. Weirdly, just the thought of things like everyone crowding into a stadium to watch a gig feels like: ‘Oh my God, why would you do that?’ at the moment. But I daresay behaviour changes. It happened after Spanish flu as well, so I imagine certain things we’ll just forget about and go back to normal.
“Hopefully, the other thing this does is throw into relief all sorts of things about what should be important in society in general and makes certain things fairly undeniable. God, how many people are now really delighted about the existence of delivery drivers, whereas a few months ago I would moan about delivery drivers with the best of them.” He puts on a grouchy voice. “‘He threw the parcel over the gate. Silly bastard. Typical.’
“I was a bit rude about a postman the other day and it’s haunted me. I was like: ‘I’m not coming out to sign for that.’ And then I thought maybe I was a bit terse with him and I didn’t need to be. I’m sure that you’re not meant to sign for them at the moment; but trying to have that debate through a closed door?”
The wretched state of the economy, he notes, has been relegated to almost an afterthought. “I’m fortunate because I’ve got a job at the moment so I’m not having to worry about the stock market. But, again, you’d hope that this means that it’s hard to justify paying someone millions and millions of pounds for sitting on the board of something. But who knows? Maybe that sort of thing will shift and change. It needs to be a societal shift.”
When societal shifts happen in Black Mirror – which migrated from Channel 4 to Netflix and was praised by the novelist Stephen King as “terrifying, funny, intelligent” – they usually come with a dark twist. The season-four episode Metalhead features a post-apocalyptic future where humans are hunted by robot dogs (“almost like a tone poem of bleakness,” he says). Brooker has little appetite to write in that vein right now, but points out that Black Mirror can be uplifting too – San Junipero was a love story with a happy ending – so we should not necessarily give up on a sixth season.
“I’m not writing stories about societies falling apart at the moment, so read into that what you will. If you look at classic dystopian stories, it becomes every man for himself immediately. Actually, in this crisis, what’s happened is you’re more likely to be sitting indoors watching Tiger King and worrying that your neighbour’s OK and asking to see if they need you to bring in a bag of potatoes or whatever. What’s actually happening at the moment is much more cohesive and heartening.
“At the moment, if you were trying to write a story about a pandemic sweeping the world and everyone immediately turning on each other, plenty of people would look at that and go: ‘Well, that isn’t what’s happened.’ So there’s plenty of room for bleak stories and horror movies – it’s just I think you’ve got to approach it slightly differently.”
Brooker was summed up on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs as: “Sardonic, deadpan, scabrous and snarky … and he’s really got it in for politicians.” But now a dad in his mellow fifth decade, it turns out he even has a place in his heart for Boris Johnson – up to a point.
“If you look at Boris Johnson getting ill, when he was in intensive care, I’m not a fan of Boris Johnson but I was worried about him on some level. He’s a human being with a kid on the way. Worrying about that doesn’t mean you’re not worried about everything else. It doesn’t mean you’re not critical of things he’s done or decisions he’s taken. And also it doesn’t give him a get-out-of-jail-free card. Now he’s back in the saddle, it doesn’t mean you can’t criticise the decisions that he’s made.”
Brooker’s assessment of Johnson as prime minister is unflattering. “I’m not a fan of the new, sort of slightly bolshie shrugging off of the truth that happens, the way they slightly adopted the fake news. Dominic Cummings swanning out of his house and telling journalists that they’re all rich remainers. It’s a sort of gaslighting that goes on.
“That feels to me like a new thing, or a new sort of shamelessness, which I hope goes into a great big burning bin. And I hope everybody involved in that eventually finds themselves nowhere near any position of power or employment. If I think about that for more than 20 seconds, I can get very cross indeed.”
Brooker’s imagination prepared him well for the world-changing pandemic. How does he feel about an event that can be predicted with absolute certainty next year: his 50th birthday? “I’m resigned to it now, I guess,” he says. “I remember turning 30 that was: ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be 30,’ and then that was OK, that was almost: ‘Oh, actually, hang on, I’m still young.’ Turning 40 was a bit more like: ‘Oh no, this isn’t great.’
“In my head I’ve been 50 for a while so I think I’m going to deal with it. But that’s probably why I’m going out running and trying to use pull-up bars, because I’m desperately trying to not die. But then, we all are.”
Charlie Brooker’s Antiviral Wipe will be on BBC Two on Thursday at 9pm